In each of our podcasts, we ask top hardware entrepreneurs the same 10 questions to better understand the challenges and best practices in starting a hardware company. In Season 2 Episode 9, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Giri Sreenivas, co-founder and CEO, and Dirk Sigurdson, co-founder and CTO of Privacy Labs, a Lemnos portfolio company. Privacy Labs is helping people be free, private, and secure online.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
Giri: The idea for Privacy Labs was motivated by what we were learning about government mass surveillance and the extent to which large companies were making this possible. It was really about working through some different concepts and realizing that this was the one that we felt the most passionate about.
Dirk: I’d say that the Edward Snowden revelations were pretty critical and instrumental to us starting this company. I, personally, had been pretty hesitant about sharing personal information with corporations for a long period of time, but once we came to the realization that it wasn’t just corporate surveillance, it’s also government surveillance that is becoming a big concern, that really gave us a good push to get into this space.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Giri: I studied computer science, but I’m not a hardware guy. I didn’t really do a whole lot of hands-on hardware work, but I grew up in a household where there was a lot of that. My dad was a tinkerer. I learned how to work on a car at an early age. Then I was fortunate early in my career to work on a lot of hardware-based projects. I spent time in the Aerospace and Defense industry at Lockheed Martin and got to work on wireless sensor networks and the airborne laser program. A lot of the projects were about software that runs at a very low level, basically directly on the hardware.
Dirk: Growing up as a kid, I was always building stuff, always into taking apart pretty much any device. I got a mechanical engineering degree, but I was introduced into programming through a requirement for my mechanical engineering degree. I was like, “Wow, I can get something created just by sitting in front of a computer and I’m still building something.” Maybe it’s not as tangible, but you feel the same satisfaction of building something virtually.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Giri: We started to think, given what we understand about the threats that are out there and given what we understand about different ways to approach the problem and what our needs are, what does a product even begin to look like? We started prototyping along that path and then we decided to take it to a broader audience to get feedback.
Dirk: Before we talked to a lot of people, we tried to create a very rudimentary, as-fast-as-possible solution. And the reaction that we got from people made us take the next step, knowing that we’re working on something that could have a huge mass appeal.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
Giri: One of the interesting things about starting a company is that there is no shortage of advice. It’s a balance of finding people that you respect and managing your own ego, being able to say, “Okay, even though this is what I believe and the direction that I want to go in, can I pull that back and really take critical or analytical feedback because I really do respect what this person has to say, even if it’s contrary to what I might be thinking in the moment?” It’s one of the hardest things for founders because you can’t be the expert at all of the things.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Giri: We knew that we wanted to meet with investors that had a hardware focus. The initial response was positive; you guys really dug in, you understood what we were doing. The most important thing is we wanted high conviction investors, high conviction backers who would understand what we were doing, the potential significance of it, and, also the ride that we all go on post-investment in a seed round.
Dirk: The interactions that we had while we were pitching the company were very positive. The feedback that we got, the communications, everyone at the firm—we really liked.
Giri: I will add that that partner meeting was probably the most interesting partner meeting I’ve done. It was like a workshopping exercise. It was interesting the curve balls that were thrown in that discussion. It was not of an interrogative nature, it was more of a, “Hey, let’s see how we all work together.” And I thought that was particularly interesting. We walked away from a partner meeting having learned something.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Dirk: Sometimes when you’re at a startup, engineers are heads down, trying to get as much stuff done as possible. That introduces some communication problems. So even though we’re not pure scrum or pure agile, we have implemented daily meetings. This is basically getting the engineering team all together. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “This is the status” and everything, but a chance for people to communicate a little bit better, get out of their computer, and have face-to-face interactions. That’s been really helpful.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Dirk: We outsourced some of our hardware development, we did it through a very reputable partner, and we based the product on something that had already been built. So I had expected that things from a hardware perspective would be very easy. This is a small iteration on what they’ve done in the past, but we did run into hardware electronics problems. It wasn’t something I thought of as being risky, but we encountered it.
Giri: The other thing that has surprised me has been the conversations that I’ve had with people who have heard little bits and pieces of what we’re doing and really want to understand deeply what it is we’re working on. We basically closed our seed almost a year ago, so it’s been surprising given how little we actually put out there about ourselves. It’s encouraging.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Dirk: For me, it’s basically the hardware aspect. We had done a software startup before, but the hardware aspect of this has been exponentially more complex. I still am doing software development, and so it’s been difficult to take on the additional role of managing the hardware. I’m still writing code, I tend to get into solving problems, and I really want to focus on solving that problem. That makes it difficult to juggle all these other things.
Giri: You have to context switch a lot. And you have to be able to do that without much overhead. It’s manageable, but at times can feel overwhelming because many times you’re context switching into areas where you’re learning things for the very first time. And you have to go to advisors or you have to go to peers, peer companies, and say, “Hey, you talked to this test fixture supplier and they gave you this sort of advice, this is what we’re hearing from ours, what should we be thinking about this?” And I think this is one of the benefits of being in the Lemnos portfolio is that there are other hardware startups that we can go talk to, get feedback from, and get advice from. That helps manage the challenges around those context switches.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Giri: Spend some time really understanding what are your strong suits, where are your blind spots. I would probably consider bringing in some level of expertise either through a consultant or a more involved advisor to have more specific guidance in-house or more closely attached to the core of what it is you’re doing. And you really need to have a wide array of talent on a team to be successful building hardware and shipping it.
Dirk: Question your assumptions. Don’t think that you know the answers to things just because you’re technical or you think you know things, especially when it comes to hardware.
- What book are you currently reading/ what are you doing to unwind from work?
Dirk: For me a big thing is keeping a connection to my family through participating in things that they like doing. I coach various sports for my kids. It’s something that I really enjoy, and they are super happy that I’m able to spend time with them.
Giri: There are two things that I do to try to maintain: I’m involved with activities with my son and with my daughter, and I try to squeeze in getting to the gym three or four days a week. It’s not necessarily about the core health benefits; it’s basically managing the stress. The family time and exercise time help provide perspective on the business, the progress, and what we’re doing.
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